FROM SCARFACE TO SCARLETT: American Films in the 1930s by Roger Dooley

FROM SCARFACE TO SCARLETT: American Films in the 1930s

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Massive and exhaustively researched it is--but this rundown of US movies in the Thirties is neither very illuminating as film history nor especially useful as a mainstream reference book. Dooley has researched ""all the nearly 5000 American feature films reviewed between January 1, 1930, and December 31, 1939""; he has grouped them into 50 ""distinct genres""--from ""Ladies with a Past"" and ""Working Girl Comedies"" lo ""Domestic Dramas"" and ""Timely Films."" And so each chapter goes more or less chronologically through the decade--capsulizing every film of a certain type (usually one paragraph per film), quoting critics (contemporary and retrospective), and sometimes noting trends. A tidy format. . . but one that's awash in misleading compartmentalization and sheer confusion. Distinctive bodies of work (by directors or performers) are broken up and discussed piecemeal. Mae West is unconvincingly put in with ""Nostalgia"" movies, and her great modern-dress film (I'm No Angel, arguably her best work) is completely left out! ""Musical Comedies from the Stage"" seems to be including all B'way-to Hollywood remakes--but Babes in Arms appears only in ""Backstage Musicals"" and Good News comes under ""Campus Capers."" And so on. Which means that you can't turn to one of Dooley's ""genres""--many of which are dubious or wildly overlap--and be confident that you're getting the whole story. Some of the genres here, of course, are completely valid, with clearly traceable developments: the biggies (like horror and crime films), which are covered better, at book-length, by Carlos Clarens et al.; and the amusingly minor ones (e.g., nurse movies, military school movies, wrestling movies), which provide this book's only real fun. But overall Dooley is too arbitrary--and too superficial: occasional stabs at sociology (""flag-waving hogwash,"" racism, etc.) are glib and obvious; Dooley's mini-critiques are blandly dependent on the most tired film-appreciation adjectives; his sketching-in of literary antecedents for his genres is shaky (he's better when noting the genres' TV descendants). So students and scholars will prefer to consult the many film studies which are more selective, focused, and thoughtful. And casual buffs will probably find Dooley's writing too flat, too much a laundry list devoid of anecdotal color. The main attraction here, then--thanks to a 25-page index--is to those who want (for scholarly or late-night-TV purposes) to get a little bit of quick info on dozens and dozens of little-known 1930s Hollywood movies.

Pub Date: June 22nd, 1981
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich